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A Nation Engaged: Voters at Milwaukee Native American Parish Envision Better Life for the Community

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Ann-Elise Henzl Reporter Milwaukee Public Radio
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Parishioners at the Congregation of the Great Spirit on Milwaukee's south side

This week, NPR is asking voters what a "better life" would look like to them, and whether this year’s slate of politicians can help achieve that vision. WUWM is asking people in Milwaukee. Ann-Elise Henzl talked with parishioners on the south side, at the Congregation of the Great Spirit. It weaves Native American traditions into Catholic services.

The Congregation of the Great Spirit is in a 100-year old church building on Lapham. A huge hoop hangs above the altar, with black, white, red and yellow sections to represent the different races. Native American spiritual music fills the air during mass. And the pastor wears colorful vestments and a ponytail. Yet the Rev. Ed Cook  expresses the same vision for a better life that people shared at services across the country last Sunday, after a violent week: "I would like this killing to stop."

The pastor says fewer guns on the street would improve the community, and so would a different distribution of wealth. "I'd like the one percent of our country that owns 40 percent of our resources to give some of that away to the children who have nothing. That would be a better life."

Cook adds one more item to his wish list: "I'd rather see the environment be the bottom line, rather than profit. I know that the people with the money aren't going to agree with that, but that's my way of thinking."

Cook says politicians can control much of what he pictures, but he doubts the right ones are in office -- or are running -- to bring his vision to fruition.

Parishioner Denita Loomis' vision focuses more on the community, than herself: "I think my life I have right now is great. As far as the nation is concerned, that's a whole different story."

Loomis echoes the pastor’s belief that elected officials have the power to address many challenges the country faces.

"The welfare of the people, the people who are at the low end of the economic level. The welfare of the people that are in the middle. And the health -- oh, my goodness -- the mental health issues have got to be addressed and worked on," Loomis says.

Garrett Boyd questions lawmakers' priorities. He says they fight too much, and that's getting in the way of helping people.

"They have it nice. You know, congressmen and senators, they have great pensions, but they're not getting a lot done because they're not getting along. That's what they need to do, to make our lives better," Boyd says.

As for how elected officials could improve lives, Boyd says: "Our vets aren't being treated as well as they should be, or our elders, those that have, you know, contributed here all their lives."

Parishioner Gayle Wilson says in her dreams of a better life, elected officials would do more to ameliorate poverty.

"How many poor people are walking around the streets nowadays, you know? On some reservations they're poorer than poor, and maybe they should do something to help them," Wilson says.

Yet Wilson doubts that the next crop of politicians will make necessary changes. So she says it's up to individuals, such as the parishioners at the Congregation of the Great Spirit, to do what they can, to make a difference. She points to the big hoop hanging above the altar.

"I'm hoping for a better place in this United States, but right now I don't see it coming right now. So I guess we have to really pray about it. Everybody should be praying about it, that's for sure. That's why we have that big hoop -- red, yellow, black and white -- it's for all people. We need that for everybody," Wilson says.

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